The Last Temptation of Christ pictured Jesus Christ in a state of moral squalor with a tattooed Mary Magdalene. It also had Jesus Christ lending a hand at the crucifixion of a fellow Jew. The New York Times, even as it noted these scenes, considered the movie "genuinely transcendent." The movie exerts "enormous power," said its reviewer. "Anyone who questions the sincerity or seriousness of what Mr. Scorsese has attempted need only see the film to lay those doubts to rest."
New York Times columnist Frank Rich hasn't seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ but he already knows it's insincere. "I have no first-hand way of knowing whether the film is benign or toxic and so instead must rely on eyewitnesses," he writes. If Jerry Falwell attacked a film through "eyewitnesses," Rich would knit his brows over such a lunging affront to "art". But it is okay for Rich to do, because "I am one of the many curious Jews who have not been invited to press screenings of 'The Passion.'"
Rich, who usually denounces conservative busybodies, has become a liberal busybody of comic proportions, hovering over Gibson's project and fretting about its potential "tinderbox effect."
Divisive art never worried Rich before. But then, he is adopting a lot of new attitudes, such as his sudden concern for Pope John Paul II. Gibson's production team, charges Rich, duped the Pope into publicizing the movie. "Pope John Paul II, frail with Parkinson's at 83, is rarely able to celebrate Mass. But why should his suffering deter a Hollywood producer from roping him into a publicity campaign to sell a movie?" writes Rich. The reported papal endorsement of Gibson's movie doesn't sit well with Rich. He says "it demeans the pope to be drafted into that scheme." That the Pope, a former playwright, approved of the movie isn't an eyewitness account Rich is ready to believe.
Rich's column is titled (in one edition) "Chutzpah and spiritual McCarthyism." It sounds autobiographical but it isn't. Rich can describe a film as anti-Semitic without seeing it, can smear it through "eyewitnesses," without falling into spiritual McCarthyism apparently. He can also attack Gibson's faith through an attack on Gibson's father's faith without falling into it.
Last year, the New York Times thought it fair to run a piece basically portraying Gibson's father as a demented anti-Semite, with the insinuation that warped views had traveled from father to son. The writer of the piece was Christopher Noxon, the son of a homeowner who objected to Mel Gibson's construction of a church in the Agoura Hills in California. Rich has been consulting with Noxon about the elder Gibson's views. In a column last September, Rich said Noxon "made available to me" a "full transcript of the interview" in which the senior Gibson supposedly denied the Holocaust. And Rich is also a careful reader of the elder Gibson's newsletters, noting that "he publishes a newsletter in which the word Holocaust appears in quotes." Rich, in that September column, was also on to Gibson's publicist Alan Neirob for playing "bizarre games with the Holocaust." Neirob, said Rich, is not a "founding member of the national Holocaust museum," as he claimed, but probably only a charter member of the museum. Rich couldn't find Neirob's name "inscribed in granite on the museum's wall," but in a moment of generous speculation, Rich opined, "Presumably he was instead among the 300,000 who responded to the museum's first direct-mail campaign for charter members. That could set you back at least 25 bucks."
None of this is spiritual McCarthyism, of course. No, no Rich is the victim of it. After all he has received hate mail (which of course he very fairly blames on "Gibson and his supporters").
Rich naturally abstains from all the McCarthyite tactics he deplores. He just doesn't want the film's marketing -- "a masterpiece of ugliness typical of the cultural moment, when hucksters wield holier-than-thou piety as a club for their own profit" -- to succeed.
But it is fitting of the New York Times and its sense of accuracy that The Last Temptation of Christ --a movie that wildly departed from the Gospels, even to the point of having Christ assist at the crucifixion of a fellow Jew -- didn't upset it. But The Passion of the Christ based on the Gospels does. Because Gibson doesn't treat the Gospels as art -- fictions to be reshaped according to liberal sensitivities -- he is one artist Frank Rich and the Times won't respect.
George Neumayr is managing editor of The American Spectator.
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